Youth are wired for risk as they dive into life’s adventures, writes Luke Stocking. Photo by Nelson de Witt/Flickr

Luke Stocking: The swan dive of life

  • June 20, 2019

Graduation season is upon us. Universities, high schools, elementary schools and these days even kindergarten cohorts celebrate and move forward to places unknown to them. 

I have been invited to Holy Cross Catholic Secondary School in Strathroy, Ont., to meet the graduating class there. It’s not exactly a commencement address, however. I have been asked to share some “words of wisdom as they go forth” between a dress rehearsal and BBQ lunch, both of which follow the school Mass.

I spent the better part of a day thinking about what I would like to say and how I would like to say it. One never knows how things will go once one starts speaking and the Spirit jumps in, but if all goes according to plan, someone will be doing a swan dive off the stage as my words come to an end. Let me explain. 

Looking for inspiration, I went back to the notebooks of dreams and other writings I kept around the time I graduated myself (many years ago). Opening one notebook I found something titled, “Grad Mass Address.” 

Skimming my handwriting, I was soon 18 again standing in St. Isaac Jogues Parish in Pickering speaking to the student body. Did I really use the phrase “pins and needles in your ass” in church? Gulp. I remember inviting my fellow students to reflect on the fullness of our collective experience during the past four years and to celebrate it as we celebrated the Mass.

However, it wasn’t the actual address I had written where I found my inspiration for the Strathroy students. That came from what I had written on the preceding page. There, titled in the silver ink pen I loved using, were some lyrics imperfectly noted from an Ani DiFranco song, “Swan Dive.” 

But I’ve had a lack of inhibition, I’ve had a loss of perspective, 

I’ve had a little bit to drink, and it’s making me think, 

That I can jump ship and swim, that the ocean will hold me, 

that there’s got to be more than this boat I’m in. 

I’m going to do my best swan dive, into shark infested waters

…cuz I don’t care if they eat me alive, 

I’ve got better things to do than survive.

Something in those lyrics spoke to me at that time of my life. There is an urgency and recklessness of Spirit to them that, just over 20 years later, gives me pause for contemplation rather than adult embarrassment. 

I have read that the development of an adolescent brain creates an imbalance between the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens that help explain high-risk behaviours classically attributed to teens. The willingness to take risks, or lack of ability to accurately assess risks, has been argued to have an evolutionary purpose — propelling cave-teens from the safety of their cave homes out into the dangerous world to create lives and new families of their own. 

They say big risks often come with big rewards. Reflecting on this, I think of the movements for social change in the world today and the increasing presence of teenagers among them. The NeverAgain MSD movement for gun control in the U.S. and the FridaysforFuture movement for climate action may be supported by adults but they have teenage souls. The soul of a thing is what is important. 

I believe that the great movements for social change today need teenage souls, because the rewards that humanity now needs are big — as in saving our common home big. They require risks that perhaps our adult and fully developed prefrontal cortexes are incapable of taking. 

Greta Thunberg said it so clearly in her address to the UK parliament on the need for climate action. “You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before. Like now. And those answers don’t exist anymore.”

At Holy Cross Secondary School, I don’t need to encourage the young graduates to make that swan dive — their brains are already literally wired to make it. I need to point them to the places all over the world where young people their own age are making those swan dives and celebrate their natural ability to join them. 

It won’t be a student jumping off the stage at the end of address. I already know how easy such a jump would be for them. It will have to be an adult, and one who has the courage to take a big risk for a big reward. 

That is the true leap of faith that we who follow Christ are being called to make.

(Stocking is Development and Peace Deputy Director of Public Engagement, Ontario and Atlantic Regions)

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